Looking for something easy and simple to cook? Couscous is the perfect solution for you. This Northern African staple made from crushed durum wheat adds an amazing fluffy texture to your salad, stew, fish, and meat recipes. Its tiny granules and neutral taste make couscous a perfect alternative to pasta and rice.
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What is Couscous?
Couscous (cous cous) is a Berber dish originating in Numidia, North Africa where, according to records, it has been consumed since 238 BC. One of the earliest written couscous recipes dates from the 13th century North African cookbook called “The cookbook of the Maghreb and Andalusia”.
Originally, couscous was made from millet. The conversion to semolina seems to have begun as late as the 20th century even though some regions still make millet, barley, and Farina couscous. In Brazil, traditional couscous is made from cornmeal.
The most widely spread type of cous cous today consists of tiny (about 3mm in diameter) balls made of semolina. Semolina is obtained by coarsely grinding or crushing wheat’s inner seed which makes it very rich in protein.
Couscous is considered a national dish throughout the North African cuisines of Algeria, Morocco, Libya, and Mauritania where it symbolizes good luck, abundance, and blessings. To a lesser extent, cous cous is also consumed in Central and Western Africa, as well as in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines like Israeli, Turkish, Greek, and Sicilian cuisine.
Traditionally, couscous is cooked by steaming and served with a meat or vegetable stew spooned over it.
The name is derived from the Berber word kesksu or seksu, meaning “rounded”.
Types of Couscous
There are three main types of couscous: Israeli, Lebanese, and Moroccan.
Israeli couscous is also called Ben-Gurion rice or ptitim which means ‘flakes’. Outside the country, it is usually sold under the labels Israeli couscous, Jerusalem couscous, or pearl couscous. Ptitim is toasted pasta shaped like tiny pellets (the size of peppercorns) whose origins can be traced back to the 1950s in Israel when rice was scarce. Israeli couscous takes longer to cook; it is usually steamed but can also be baked or fried. Israeli couscous can be stirred like rice in risotto (combined with sautéed garlic, onions, veggies, and meat), included in pies, soups, or used for stuffing. It is especially popular among kids I Israel, who eat it plain or mixed with tomato paste & fried onions.
Lebanese couscous is larger than Israeli couscous, the pellets being about the size of small peas. It is called moghrabieh which means ‘a dish from the Maghreb’ and is considered a festive meal in the country. Lebanese couscous is usually cooked in lamb or chicken bouillon and served with lamb or chicken meat chunks.
Moroccan couscous is comprised of tiny grains of semolina that are about three times the size of cornmeal grains. It is the type of cous cous that cooks fastest.
When it comes to couscous nutrition, the first question we need to answer is: “Is couscous gluten-free?” Well, bearing in mind that wheat is one of the three grains that contain gluten (besides rye and barley), the answer is negative.
However, that doesn’t mean that cous cous isn’t good for you. Here are the health benefits of consuming couscous:
Couscous is very rich in lean, plant-based protein (one cup contains 6 grams of protein) which is crucial for keeping the muscles, bones, skin, and internal organs in good shape.
Eating this grain-like pasta will provide you with dietary fiber as well (one cup contains 2 grams of dietary fiber). Because of its ability to absorbs water, dietary fiber makes you feel satiated which makes it crucial for managing body weight. In addition, it prevents constipation and regulates cholesterol levels.
Considering that couscous is unprocessed whole grain food, most of the nutrients it contains remain intact. It is a great source of vitamins, especially niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, B6, pantothenic acid, and folate. These nutrients are responsible for keeping the skin, blood cells, nervous system, brain, heart and immune system in good shape.
When it comes to minerals, selenium prevails with over 60% of the recommended daily value per serving. This mineral is very important for the thyroid hormones, reproductive health, protein synthesis and preventing oxidative damage. There is also manganese which is crucial for regulating blood sugar levels and metabolism, as well as maintaining healthy blood, bones, hormones, and boosting cognitive functions.
The beauty of couscous, besides being extremely versatile, is that it cooks in no time and there’s almost no way to get it wrong. Almost.
The product that we usually buy from the supermarkets is instant couscous. This means it has been steamed and dried in advance and you only need to boil water before it is ready to eat.
Here is what you need for cooking couscous:
1 cup instant couscous
1 cup water
1-2 tablespoons olive oil or butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
Even though couscous is pasta, when it comes to cooking it acts like a grain. This means that you can’t just pour it into a boiling water, cook, and then drain it.
The water-couscous ratio is usually 1:1 but it largely depends on the recipe;
- add a bit more water if you want a somewhat sticky couscous you’ll be using instead of rice in risotto recipes (one cup water to 2/3 cup couscous)
- or decrease the amount of water if you’re planning to make a couscous salad (one cup couscous to 2/3 cup water)
The truth is couscous only needs 5-10 minutes soaking in a simmering or very hot water. This, however, depends largely on the brand so, if you aren’t sure stick to the traditional method of preparation:
Pour the water and butter or oil in a saucepan. Heat over high heat until it boils.
Once the water is boiling, remove the saucepan from heat and add the couscous together with the salt and stir well. If you don’t remove the water from heat, the couscous will overcook.
Cover the saucepan with a lid and let it sit for about 10 minutes so that the couscous absorbs the water. Taste to checks whether it has softened. If the couscous is still crunchy, cover and let it sit for about 5 more minutes.
The texture of the couscous depends a lot on the age of the couscous. Right after cooking, the couscous is very dense and chewy. To prevent this, turned it out into a bowl after it has cooled. Then, with oiled fingers, separate the grains and work out any lumps until. Alternatively, fluff the couscous by gently breaking any clumps with a fork. This is done just before serving. In case you aren’t serving it immediately, just cover the saucepan to keep the couscous warm.
Generally, one cup of dried couscous yields four cups of cooked couscous.
For more flavor, you can use broth instead of water. Another way to add extra flavor is to toast the couscous before steaming. Melt some butter in a pan, then add the uncooked couscous and stir until fragrant. Boil the water in a separate saucepan, then pour it over the toasted couscous and follow the instructions given above.
Top 5 Couscous Recipes
As we mentioned before, couscous is so versatile that it can even be used in desserts. Choosing the best couscous recipes is not an easy task but after lots of sampling and cooking, we’ve managed to find them.
Colorful bell peppers are used with double purpose in this recipe – besides being a treat on their own, they also serve as ‘baking cups’ for the savory couscous blend. do double-duty in this fun dish—they are “baking cups” for a savory blend comprised of couscous cooked in chicken broth, mushrooms, raisins, pine nuts, and parsley. Tip: To keep the bell peppers stand straight in the baking dish, cut a small slice off the bottom.
A variation of this couscous recipe is made by adding 1/2 to 1 cup raisins to the couscous mixture after removing from heat and then sprinkling with 1/2 to 1 cup peanuts on top just before serving.
Just like its deserts and seacoast, Morocco’s cuisine is full of contrasts. This nutty and spicy chicken is baked with couscous, green olives, raisins, and spices. You can vary the amount of ground cumin as you wish or, if you don’t have it in your kitchen, substitute it with parsley.
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Golden, pan-fried chicken and mixed vegetables in velvety tarragon sauce create a simple and yet rich dinner. Tip: to keep the chicken warm and help seal in the moisture, cover with aluminum foil.
This is an exotic Moroccan-style feast with turkey and a blend of unique, flavorful, and healthy ingredients including honey, cumin, apricots, cinnamon, eggs, Feta and Parmesan cheese, olives, and sun-dried tomatoes. Perfection!